..the righteousness of God has been disclosed….Romans 3:21
We recently received two special gifts at St. John’s. The first is a story in a letter from Father Joseph Heim, a retired Roman Catholic priest in residence at St. Anne’s. He wrote: “As we approach the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation I would like to share with you a story that a friend told me about Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. My friend, Tony Massimini, was a priest studying in Rome at the time of the Council. He told me that when Pope John met with the delegation of Protestant Observers he stepped down from his throne and greeted them in his native tongue and using his baptismal name, he said, ‘Sono Giuseppi, vostro fratello.’ ‘I am Joseph, your brother.’”
Then, he said, “The subject of the Reformation will come up in these discussions and I want you to know, it was our fault.” Tony heard that from an observer so the words may not be exactly the original but the theme is very clear. Pope John was not only a theologian, he was also an historian. But above all he was a man of faith and integrity.”
The letter concluded. “So, as a Catholic priest five hundred years later, I would have to say that we are very grateful and hope that we can still learn. In Our Lord, Rev. Joseph A. Heim, MM. As I read the letter, tears flowed down my face. I hope that we can still learn, too.
We need to. One of the dangers inherent in our yearly celebration of the Reformation and perhaps especially in this 500th anniversary year is that when we put on our team’s color, red, and sing our team’s song, A Mighty Fortress, and shout our team’s cheers, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Word Alone, and tell stories about our team heroes, Martin, Katie and Phillip, and drink our team’s beer, a good German lager and eat our team’s food, reformation buns and roast pork, we can turn into over-zealous fans and completely miss the heart of the matter.
I suspect this was Dr. Krister Stendahl’s concern when he preached at Advent Lutheran Church for the Trenton Lutheran Cluster Reformation Celebration on October 31, 1982. After warmly greeting us he launched into a story about two Lutherans who went to the same church, German Frederick and Swedish Karl. They had an ongoing debate about who would get to heaven, the German Lutheran or the Swedish one. So, they made a pledge: whoever died first would come back to tell the other what to expect. A week or so after Karl’s funeral, Frederick heard him in his sleep, “Frederick, it’s me Karl. When I first got to heaven all I could hear was the angels’ choir singing, Children of the Heavenly Father in Swedish. I was so excited. But as I got use to the sights and sounds, I recognize A Mighty Fortress, Ein Feste Berg, in German and I thought there is a place for my friend, Frederick in heaven. Then I heard chanting in Latin by people making the sign of the cross – Catholics in heaven? This was followed by Hebrew being sung by Jews wearing prayer shawls while bowing over and over again. There were Muslims too, kneeling on prayer rugs, Buddhists meditating and others I didn’t recognize. Heaven is so much bigger than either of us ever imagined.” Only then did Dr. Stendhal talk about the truth making us free and how that truth resides not in us, no matter how great we are at being Lutherans, but in God’s righteousness alone. In his story he moved us beyond ourselves, beyond our pride and traditions, our fears and anxieties, so that we might experience the heart of God.
This is so hard to do, to trust and believe in God because God is beyond our control. Better to tell us what we need to do, what laws must be kept, rules obeyed and regulations followed so that we might get good grades on our spiritual report card and earn our salvation. Few were more diligent than the monk Martin Luther in this effort. Ever anxious about his sins, he spent hours confessing and right after receiving absolution he’d start all over again. At one point his confessor said to him, “Don’t come back Martin, until you have some real sins to confess.” Luther was what theologian Ted Peter’s calls “a fragile soul.” Caught in a web of anxiety he never felt secure. No matter how hard he tried and what affirmation he received, it wasn’t enough. To put it in social media terms, he always needed yet one more “like” on his Facebook page. He fell short of righteousness and while most folks then slip into the lie of self-righteousness, Luther was so bluntly honest, he felt as if he was in hell. How could he believe in a just God, if no matter what he did, he always fell short?
Then as he pondered our second reading for today, Luther experienced a revelation, the justice of God is God’s righteousness, God’s action, God’s gift of grace. We can never earn or deserve it for it is a pure gift. At Bible Study last Wednesday evening when we got to this part of the text, Rachel Zimmermann pulled out her cell phone and called up her Greek New Testament app to find out what the original Greek word was and discovered that besides being translated as righteousness, it could also be “divine approval.” So, we tried it out, substituting the words “divine approval” wherever righteousness appeared in the passage: “the divine approval of God has been disclosed, the divine approval of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all believe….God did this to show his divine approval.” God does it. Not us. God justifies us, makes us right, we don’t justify ourselves. Thank God, for when we tried to do so, we always wind up lying and it’s a lie leading to death. Salvation is a gift of grace. Ted Peter’s says “it’s like a Christmas present; we only need to open it up and make it our own – then enjoy playing with it.” This is what Dr. Stendhal wanted those Trentonian Lutherans to know – that it’s about God and what God was and is doing in that beloved city.
But there’s more and this is critical, for while Trenton was a beloved city, it was also broken one. Its center had collapsed as factories closed and jobs disappeared. Drug and alcohol abuse increased and crime grew. Violence and despair hung out on street corners. And while the churches worked hard, at times it felt hopeless. Yet, the suffering Christ remained with them and in them and with and in all the broken ones. With them in their fear and sorrow. With them as they bound up wounds and cared for the poor. In them, as they sang the blues and fed the hungry. In them as they hoped for and experienced resurrection. We wanted a pep rally, but what we got Good Friday followed by Easter Sunday. That was true then at Advent Lutheran Church in Trenton and it is true here today at St. John’s Lutheran Church, in Phoenixville.
I began by saying we’d received two Reformation gifts. The first was that amazing letter from Father Joe Heim hoping that the church can still learn. The second was from Rabbi Jeff Sultar of B’nai Jacob Synagogue. It’s a stunningly beautiful book entitled Martin Luther: Treasures of the Reformation that’s a catalogue of an extraordinary exhibit held last Spring at the Morgan Library in NYC. To be given this by a Rabbi, when Luther was not a treasure for Jews, overwhelms me. Luther initially taught that Christians should be guided in their dealings by the laws of Christian love. But fifteen years later when they did not convert even when the New Testament was translated into German and there were rumors that Jews were trying to convert Christians, Luther wrote a scathing treatise entitled, On the Jews and their Lies. In it he said Jewish synagogues and schools should be set on fire, their houses razed and destroyed, their prayers books taken from them and their rabbis forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb. Jews were to be denied safe conduct when traveling, their wealth was taken and assigned to manual labor. Four centuries later the Nazi’s used Luther’s writing, to support their racist anti-Semitism calling him a genuine German who hated non-Nordic races. This book is a sign of grace far, far beyond our deserving. May we be humbled and re-formed. Amen.
Ted Peters, Sin Boldly!: Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls, Fortress Press, 2017, 461.
Eric Gritsch, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-39/was-luther-anti-semitic.html